Can brain images prove near-death experiences aren’t real?

In a quest to prove that heaven exists, or perhaps really doesn’t, neuroscientists have been attempting to study near-death experiences and whether commonly described phenomenon—like moving through a dark tunnel towards the light—stems from some psychic realm or the brain itself.

The latest study garnering prominent coverage in the Washington Post and on CNN concludes that near-death experiences are the creation of our brain; that’s a pretty big leap to make, however, since the University of Michigan researchers were conducting the studies in animals.

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Since it’s impractical to perform MRI brain imaging on patients who are in the throes of cardiac arrest, the researchers decided to stop the hearts of rats to see whether the act of dying altered their brain function.

Within the first 30 seconds after the rats stopped breathing, all had a surge in brain activity in certain regions responsible for consciousness and visual processing, according to results published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That led the researchers to conclude that “the mammalian brain can, albeit paradoxically, generate neural correlates of heightened conscious processing at near-death.”

In other words, our brains may be programmed to see images of God, our dead relatives, or a land filled with rainbows and butterflies when we’re about to die. But that doesn’t mean we’re actually visiting heaven.

That goes against the tenets of a best-selling book “Proof of Heaven,” where author Dr. Eben Alexander, insisted that his own near-death experience could have only occured while his brain’s higher reasoning centers were completely shut down due to a coma from an infection that ravaged his brain. Alexander, a neurosurgeon, claims to have visited a place called “the core” where a girl on a butterfly wing told him that nothing he can do is wrong.

“While I was in a coma my brain hadn’t been working properly,” wrote Alexander. “It hadn’t been working at all.”

But Alexander was taken to task in a recent Esquire profile in which a physician who treated him revealed that she put him into a medically induced coma where he drifted in and out of consciousness for several days. Clearly, his brain had been working.

While the new research suggests that the brain goes into a state of overdrive when thrust into the possibility of its own demise, whether this translates into vivid images of heaven and a higher power is still unknown. (Even if the rats had survived the experiment, they wouldn’t have been able to describe what they’d experienced.)

The whole notion of trying to proof or disprove an after-life based on brain studies is sort of silly anyway. I think the researchers were more interested in studying consciousness in the face of death than in trying to prove that those of us lucky enough to have journeyed to and from heaven aren’t really going anywhere at all.